Crystal Ball Scratching

With just under seven weeks to go until Christmas, the next couple of months are very important for clubs chasing promotion or trying to avoid relegation.

As there are no particularly outstanding games in the Championship this weekend I thought I’d gaze into my crystal ball this week to make some quick predictions – especially as we’ve got another bl**dy international break coming up next weekend.

  • It looks as if I’m going to have to eat my words about Leeds – they’re much better than I thought they’d be and there’s a chance that by Boxing Day they may have secured pole position – their key game before the festivities is a trip to Bramall Lane on December 1st. Looking further ahead, February may be the key month for Leeds but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
  • Leeds’ biggest rivals for automatic promotion are Middlesbrough and WBA, but although Marcelo Bielsa’s side are well balanced, Tony Pulis and Darren Moore’s men have glaring issues: Middlesbrough don’t score enough goals, whilst WBA’s defence is non-existent. Only four teams have conceded more goals than the Baggies and two of them are in the bottom three.
  • Along with Leeds, Birmingham and Nottingham Forest are unrecognisable from last season – the latter pair have become tough to beat, but may need to wait another season for a realistic chance of promotion. Forest’s best case scenario is the playoffs.
  • Norwich aren’t as good as the current table suggests: they’ve done well against the bottom half of the table, but have already lost at home to Leeds and WBA. They have a reasonable looking schedule this month; December will be far harder.
  • Sheffield Wednesday are worse than the current table suggests: current owners of the worst defensive record in the division they’ve played 12 games against the teams currently above them and lost seven of those contests, winning just twice. They face Sheffield United on Friday (Sky Sports Football/Main Event 7:45pm this evening) and Derby later in the month.
  • As it stands, Paul Lambert has a well nigh impossible task of keeping Ipswich from dropping into the third tier for the first time since the late 1950s, but I’d expect Rotherham and Bolton to be drawn into the relegation battle over the next few weeks: both teams are struggling to score goals – at the moment there are three other clubs that have scored less than a goal per game, including QPR who are currently eleventh and are second in the eight game form table behind Norwich.
  • Reading and Preston will continue to make progress up the table and although I don’t think Reading will trouble the top half, Preston are more than capable of doing that even though they look as if they’ve left it too late for a playoff challenge.

Televised games this week – Sky Sports Football/Main Event unless stated:

I’ve already mentioned the Sheffield derby, which is always entertaining and shouldn’t be missed if you’ve got the opportunity to watch. The other game on Sky Sports this weekend is between WBA and Leeds at The Hawthorns (tomorrow, 5:30pm) – for some of us, that’ll bring back memories of a very controversial game from the 1970/71 season…

Leeds Reverse Means The Worst For Hurst

The last seven days have proved that the Championship is anything but predictable.

Now we’re at the end of what our German friends call an ‘English Week’, the form book has been turned on its’ head and another manager has lost his job.

Middlesbrough got off to a good start last Friday evening in last week’s game of the week…

However, I don’t think anyone would have predicted that Rotherham would have travelled to the Riverside on Tuesday evening and earned a point after  a goalless draw. Sheffield Wednesday also lost at QPR and have gone from the top six to the bottom half of the table in a week; after some impressive recent performances, WBA were spanked 4-1 at home by Derby on Wednesday evening.

There were originally three matches that I’d considered for Game of the Week, but I ruled out Middlesbrough v Derby for being too obvious and neither Millwall v Ipswich nor Preston v Rotherham looked like headline grabbers – even though they’re both important games at the bottom  of the table.

As it’s the end of  October I thought I’d take a quick look at the teams who have either noticeably improved or deteriorated from last season.

The most improved teams so far this season are Birmingham, Leeds and Nottingham Forest.  I thought Garry Monk should have been in the conversation for the September manager of the month award and he should be the obvious choice for the October award – the Blues are undefeated in ten games and have won for of their last six games and so far this season they’ve only lost once in seven games against the teams that are currently above them in the table.

The clubs that have taken at least one step back since last season are Aston Villa, Millwall, Preston, Ipswich and Hull. We all know about Dean Smith replacing Steve Bruce at Villa, but until yesterday afternoon my money would have been on Hull’s Nigel Adkins being the next manager to receive his marching orders.

That’s when Ipswich Town decided that – having dropped to bottom of the table after losing at Leeds – the Paul Hurst era was over after just fifteen games. The Tractor Boys haven’t won at home since April, have lost seven of their last ten away games and wouldn’t have escaped the bottom three this weekend even if they’d won. It’s a similar situation with Adkins: the Tigers have gone seven games without a win and conceded late goals in their last two games that effectively cost them four points.

I think it’s fair to say that there are some signs that Millwall and Preston may have just taken a while to get going rather than showing any damaging long term signs of regression, but now’s the time for Neil Harris and Alex Neil to make their moves.

This weekend’s televised games are as follows – shown on either on Sky Sports Football and/or Main Event unless stated: QPR v Aston Villa (this evening, 7:45pm), Middlesbrough v Derby (tomorrow, 12:30pm) and Leeds v Nottingham Forest (tomorrow, 5:30pm). The Saturday games looks most tempting and it won’t come as a huge surprise that QPR have been chosen again, whilst Leeds/Forest is always televised – although this season it’s actually relevant for a change.

I’ll back in a fortnight as I’m off to France for half term.

GOTW: Sheffield Wednesday v Middlesbrough

Welcome to the second – and penultimate – post of October 2018.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last wrote anything, but although we’re already just over  a quarter of the way through the season something statistically significant may have happened: only the current top six are on course to make the playoffs. I wouldn’t expect to see something like that until much nearer the end of the season. 

As it stands, any of the top four could be in pole position at the end of this round of games and with another midweek programme next week the overall situation still looks pretty fluid. A stat that’s worth considering: only Leeds and Sheffield United have played fewer than three games against their immediate rivals for promotion. On the other hand Middlesbrough have already played four games against the other five team in the top six.

Anyway, without any further ado, here’s the game of the week – a televised Yorkshire derby!

Sheffield Wednesday v Middlesbrough

(this evening, 7:45pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

After having predicted another season of slow decline from Wednesday, I’m now going to both eat my words based on their recent performances. They’ve suffered only one home defeat in their last ten (although they’ve drawn the last three at Hillsborough – blowing leads against Leeds and WBA) and only two reverses in their last ten at all venues. Before I get too carried away, I’d still be a bit wary of their defence though: they’ve conceded in nine of their last ten matches.

Middlesbrough’s recent home defeat by Nottingham Forest was their first loss at the Riverside since last season’s playoffs, but before anyone writes Tony Pulis’ side off they should remember that they’ve only lost twice away from home since the end of January. Stopping Boro from scoring is imperative but as you just read, that’s not exactly Sheffield Wednesday’s strength right now.

HTH: Wednesday have won three of the last five games at Hillsborough, but haven’t recorded a victory since two goals in two minutes gave them a 2-0 will in February 2015.

Verdict: there’s only been one away win in the eight games between the current top six so far this season, but half of those games ended all square. I think a draw is highly likely. Incidentally, my GOTW record so far: two home wins, two draws, two away wins.

Other games to follow this weekend are both at the bottom, where Paul Clement and Nigel Atkins will both be attempting to avoid being the next manager without a job:

Hull v Preston: the Tigers have lost four of their last five, but after four consecutive defeats Preston have picked up four points from the last six and could be poised to make one of those impressive runs similar to the one last season that took Millwall from flirting with the drop to dreaming of the Premier League. Talking of which…

Reading v Millwall: this will be Reading’s 20th league game since the end of March and they’ve won precisely three of them: two of those victories were against Preston. After six defeats in seven games, Millwall are unbeaten this month.

The other televised games are between Blackburn and Leeds (noon Saturday, Sky Sports Football red button) and Derby v Sheffield United (5:30pm Saturday, Sky Sports Football/Main Event). Both of those look as if they might be worth watching, although the game from Ewood Park will be overshadowed by the clash between Jose Mourinho’s former employers that’s also being shown on Sky at more or less the same time.

Finally this week, Brentford appointed Thomas Frank as manager following the departure of Dean Smith to former Premier League outfit Aston Villa. The Dane had previously managed at Brondby in Denmark, but has no previous managerial experience in the UK.  And we all know what happened to the last Brentford manager who had a similar record .

I’ll be back be next weekend.

GOTW: Millwall v Sheffield United

The big news last weekend was that Leeds lost at home for the first time since March.

Two Che Adams goals in the first half an hour gave Birmingham their first away win since April and their third victory at Elland Road in the last five years.

And yes, I have tried to look for official highlights from either team but none seem to exist.

That result – combined with Middlesbrough’s goalless draw with Swansea – means that there’s now only a three point gap between Leeds and seventh placed Brentford.

At the bottom it was a fairly straightforward win for Reading:

The victories for Birmingham and Reading change the landscape at the bottom a little bit: nobody is in danger of being cast adrift this weekend but I’m beginning to wonder if Alex Neil will last the entire season at Preston.

There are two teams left in the League Cup: Derby (who beat Manchester United on penalties) and Nottingham Forest (who beat Stoke). For any casual Premier League fans reading this, Derby are slightly better than they were last season: Donald Trump could be their manager and they’d still finish in the top six without getting promoted.

We reach the ten game milestone this weekend – it’s hard to believe we’re already a third of the way through the season even though there’s another eight months left. After this weeks games we’ll have a far clearer picture of what’s going to happen although the next 15 or so games between now and Boxing Day will make it even clearer. If you’re going to win promotion or avoid relegation now’s the time to make a move: which is why this weekend’s game of the week is an important one for both teams.

Millwall v Sheffield United

The Lions aren’t that bad at home and I’d expect them to avoid relegation, but there are a couple of things Neil Harris needs to tweak. Only Ipswich and Rotherham have scored fewer goals so far and although Millwall have only lost two of their last ten games at the New Den, they’ve blown leads in three of their four outings in South London this season. Swansea beat them at the start of the month despite playing with ten men for most of the game after Courtney Baker-Richardson’s straight red card for an awful tackle on James Meredith.

The Blades recovered from their recent defeat at Bristol City by picking up four points from the next two matches. I know I’ve picked their matches for two of the last three games of the week but I think they’re a good measure of the comparative strength of the top six as I think there’s a possibility that they’re overrated at the moment. 80% of their points have been earned against teams currently in the bottom half of the table and they’ve got a habit of conceding late goals.

Millwall have won seven of the last ten games between the clubs in South London – the last time the game ended in a draw was in a Third Division game at the Den in March 1980, so it’s about time that outcome happened again.

There are two other games to look out for tomorrow, both of which are bottom six/top six matches: Hull v Middlesbrough and Preston v WBA.

This weekend’s televised games are as follows:

This evening: 7:45pm: Bristol City v Aston Villa (Sky Sports Red Button), Sheffield Wednesday v Leeds (Sky Sports Football/Main Event); on Saturday at 5:30pm it’s Rotherham v Stoke (Sky Sports Football/ Main Event), which is a rare one as they’ve not met since August 2004 and Stoke haven’t won at Rotherham since April 1993.

Finally another reminder that there will be no post from me for the next couple of weeks, although if anything dramatic happens I’ll post a quick recap.

EFL Sky Bet Championship Preview 2018/19

We’re only a couple of hours from the start of another nine months of fascinating and frustrating action in the Championship so here’s my take on what to look out for in 2018/19.

I decided to abandon the club by club previews for this season because – to be perfectly honest – I needed a break after the World Cup, which ended less than a month ago. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy – far from it!

Seven of last ten Championship winners had spent the previous season in the competition, although four of last five seasons have been won by teams that had either been relegated at the end of the previous campaign or hadn’t even finished in the top nine – atlhough I need to point out immediately that two of the three teams that bounced back immediately were Newcastle United. The last unsuccessful playoff team who went on to win the Championship were Leicester in 2013/14, which isn’t good news for Aston Villa. Stoke are the current favourites – which makes sense, but as the Racing Post pointed out in their excellent preview earlier this week, over the last decade only one of the antepost favourites to win the title have done so – Newcastle a couple of seasons ago.

Automatic Promotion

It’s a similar story in the battle for second place, which in six of the last ten seasons has been won by a team that has played at least one season in the Championship, but only two clubs that had been unsuccessful in the playoffs at the end of the previous have managed that –Middlesbrough fans take note. Teams between eighth and thirteenth were far more likely to bridge the gap between just missing out on the playoffs to becoming genuine promotion contenders: so based on last season’s performances Bristol City and Millwall cannot be ruled out. It’s been eight seasons since one of the relegated teams finished second: depending on your point of view that means it’s about time someone managed that again or it shows how difficult it is to adapt to the second tier. I’d prefer the latter explanation.

Playoffs

Last season Fulham became the first team since Swansea in 2011 to win promotion via the playoffs after a top ten finish in the Championship at the end of the previous campaign. Other than that, there have been strong performances from relegated teams (four of the last ten winners) and from sides nobody expected to do well – Blackpool, Crystal Palace and Huddersfield all finished in the bottom half of the table in the season before they won the so-called ‘richest game in the world.’ I’m not saying that Nottingham Forest or QPR fans should get overexcited, but they’re precisely the sort of teams that fit the description: Forest appear to be this season’s trendy pick but we’ll see about that.

Relegation

Slightly easier to predict. Last season Sunderland became only the second club in the last decade to suffer consecutive relegations (the other team was Wolves) so it’s safe to say that there’s only a remote chance that the new arrivals from the Premier League will find themselves in the bottom three next May. Only six of the last 30 teams that were relegated from the Championship (20%) went down after being promoted from League One so even though Rotherham are among the favourites for the drop, that might not be the case. If you’re looking for teams that could struggle, your best bet is to look at clubs that finished in seventeenth place or below last season: half of the teams that were relegated over the last ten years had performed poorly in the competition during the previous season – although in 2017/18, only Burton had finished the previous season in the bottom six. Bolton and Reading look particularly vulnerable this time round: the Trotters finished two points clear of Barnsley despite not being in the bottom three from January until the penultimate game of the season and – to use one of my favourite cliches – the Royals were lucky that there were three teams worse than them last season. If you’re looking for an outsider for relegation, don’t rule out Hull – they were marooned in the bottom third of the table from the end of October, slipped into the bottom three at the start of February and only won eight more points than Barnsley. Not to mention that I think Nigel Adkins is incredibly overrated as a manager.

Rash Predictions:

Neither Aston Villa nor Bristol City will perform as well as they did last season, but the consequences for the Robins will not be as dire as they will for the Villans. Especially if Thierry Henry actually does replace Steve Bruce.

It’s been over five seasons since Marcelo Bielsa has coached a club side for more than 20 games. The recent history of the Championship has been littered with ‘big’ names that couldn’t manage at this level and I will be very surprised if he’s the still manager of Leeds this time next season. I was tempted to add ‘at Christmas’ there, but I said that about Ian Holloway last season and he managed to last the entire season before being binned by QPR.

I’m not sure which of the former Premier League teams will have the best season, but Stoke pinching Gary Rowett from Derby is a canny move that might work out well. On the other hand, I’m prepared to wait and see how his replacement at the Rams will do: on paper Frank Lampard should be a decent manager, but five consecutive top ten finishes show just how frustrating it must be to support Derby and Lampard will be doing well if he can make that six.

Despite having picked up a couple of pre-season injuries that could scupper their start to the season, Preston could be dark horses for promotion if they start winning the type of games they drew last season.

Sheffield Wednesday’s decline will continue although I don’t think they’ll be relegated. Staying in South Yorkshire, don’t be too surprised if Paul Warne suddenly becomes the target of bigger clubs if Rotherham defy expectations.

I might be alone here, but I can’t see Ipswich struggling. The Tractor Boys have been stuck in a rut for years now but they aren’t suddenly going to get worse overnight. Paul Hurst did a great job at Shrewsbury last season and I think the doom mongers are extraordinarily premature and are basing their predictions on the last ten games of last season when Town had absolutely nothing to play for and nobody had a clue who the next manager would be.

I’ve left the easiest one until last: last May it was 38 years since a second tier club won the FA Cup. It won’t happen this season either.

A couple of interesting stat lines for those of you that are interested in that kind of thing:

The most popular score line in the Championship over the last five seasons has been 1-1; it won’t come as a massive surprise that over the same period, both teams have scored in just over half of the games in the division.

Last season was the second season in the last three where fewer than 2.6 goals per game were scored; four of the last five campaigns have featured an average of over 2.5 goals per game.